A “tell” in poker is a subtle clue by which a player unintentionally communicates something about his or her hand. Telling is not good in a poker game, nor is it good in fiction. A recent discovery reminded me just how potent not telling can be.
I’d heard her name over the years but had never read her work: Nadine Gordimer.
Total shame on me, considering that she was the 1991 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The list of her other awards takes up more than a full computer screen. How, as a writer of serious fiction, could I have overlooked her?
I won’t even bother to make excuses.
Thankfully there is no penalty for late discovery of a literary treasure, only eagerness and the blossoming anticipation of looking forward to reading her numerous short stories and novels.
I have writer Tessa Hadley, author of a recent short story in the New Yorker, to thank for my discovery. She chose Gordimer’s story “City Lovers,” which originally appeared in the New Yorker on October 13, 1975, to read on a recent New Yorker fiction podcast.
Listening to Hadley read the story as I took a walk, I was transported from suburban California to a very different suburbia: the South Africa of the 1970s, where an Austrian geologist, Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf, lives in a “three-room flat in a suburban block with a landscaped central garden.”
Von Leinsdorf meets and becomes involved with—I hesitate to say falls in love with, though love may figure into the equation—a “Colored girl cashier.” Their affair, when enclosed within the walls of the flat, almost manages to transcend their roles. When the world outside intrudes, the consequences are frightful. (You can read a summary of the story here.)
If ever there were an inspiring example for writers of “show, don’t tell,” this is it. The story is full of moral outrage—Gordimer skewers South Africa’s system of apartheid and then zooms out to reveal that racism and classism are manifest around the world—yet never preaches. The relationship between the two characters, not the author’s desire to make a statement, drives the story. And, while Gordimer reveals all the nuances of her characters, her prose is never showy. The voice is matter-of-fact and all the more powerful for its simplicity.
If you have a spare hour, I highly recommend listening to the podcast, which includes a conversation about the story between Tessa Hadley and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Triesman. The podcast is free to download. Or, if you’re a subscriber, visit the magazine’s archives (though I had some technical difficulties accessing the archives even as a subscriber).
Have you discovered (or rediscovered) a writer who reminded you of a very important aspect of your craft?